Magic: The Gathering Spells vs. Creatures: Is Standard Balanced? by Joseph Dunlap

Spells vs Creatures Is Standard Balanced magic

Magic: The Gathering Spells vs. Creatures: Is Standard Balanced?

Recently, Mark Rosewater was asked on his Blogatog: “Why have you killed off blue and red in Standard by focusing more on creatures than spells?”

Bear with me here, as the common parlance for noncreature spells is simply shortened to ‘spells’. For purposes of this article, most references to ‘spells’ refer to noncreature spells.

To understand the point of view of the user asking this question, one must first understand that green and white are currently the most creature-focussed colours, and black has the highest quantity of creature removal spells in Standard at this time. By extension, in a creature-heavy format, that would cause blue and red to the odd-one-out, right? By the same logic, a creature-heavy format must mean spells are inherently weaker?

Mark Rosewater replied directly to the question of Spells vs. Creatures in Standard:

The immediate reaction from the Magic community was twofold:

1. Collected Company and Dromoka’s Command are Spells reliant on Creatures’

Collected Company is only optimal in a deck of 23 or more creatures in the starting 60, which has become the lowest accepted figure among Company players. Dromoka’s Command requires creatures in play to be effective and achieve the power level to which it has reached since its release.

2. Languish is a suboptimal board wipe that is only played because of the creature-heavy format’

It is fair to say that every format has its defining board wipes, but Languish is undeniably weaker than the most played four-mana sweepers: Wrath of God, Day of Judgment, Damnation, Supreme Verdict… Think about how many copies of Languish you’ve seen in Standard a year ago versus today. When Bant Company and similar aggro-midrange decks rose to prominence in the past year, Languish became the go-to sweeper.

Crux of Fate, Planar Outburst, Descend upon the Sinful, Tragic Arrogance and Crush of Tentacles all cost more than four mana and, as a result, have been less popular than Languish perhaps solely for that reason. Red has produced its usual variety of limited sweepers, Radiant Flames is capped at three damage, Chandra, Flamecaller can either deal up to four damage across the board without remaining on the battlefield (and costs six mana, so choose wisely), and Nahiri’s Wrath hasn’t yet truly found a home in Standard thus far. Kozilek’s Return requires setup time to deal the maximum five damage but the exile ability can’t be countered, and is a key component of one of the most powerful interactions in Standard at the moment alongside Elder Deep-Fiend or Emrakul, the Promised End in the Temur Emerge archetype.

The only other options in black are Flaying Tendrils, Biting Rain, Eyeblight Massacre, and Rising Miasma (I bet you didn’t know all of those existed!), all of which only apply -2/-2 to the board and come at a similar price as Languish.

Languish may not be the sweeper we deserve, but it is the one we needed for now…


Standard Power Levels: How Does Each Colour Breakdown?

Jokes aside, none of the cards Rosewater listed were blue or red, which was the main concern of the question proposed. Presuming for a moment that Maro’s list is 100% accurate, what is their colour distribution?

  • [Card]Collected Company[/Card] – Creature-Based Spell, Green.
  • [Card]Archangel Avacyn[/Card] – Creature, White.
  • [Card]Sylvan Advocate[/Card] – Creature, Green.
  • [Card]Languish[/Card] – Sweeper, Black.
  • [Card]Dromoka’s Command[/Card] – Creature-Based Spell, Green-White.

Blue and red are conspicuously missing from the list, and Maro had the following to say on the matter: “The pendulum swings, making certain colours stronger and weaker in the metagame.” If the pendulum is intended to swing away from blue and red for the time being, it would explain the balance swing towards a metagame full of creature-based midrange decks and black-based control decks.

It is worth noting that there are viable spell-based archetypes in blue and red that are seemingly less popular or more susceptible to the ‘hate cards’ currently available in the current Standard format. They even put up good tournament results from time to time, just not as consistently as the archetypes we’ve just touched upon.


We’ve Seen Maro’s List of the Most Powerful, but Which Cards Are the Most Popular to Play in Standard?

Just how accurate was Rosewater’s list of the five most powerful cards? According to, these are the top ten most played nonland cards in Standard (A.K.A. Not including Evolving Wilds[/Card] since the release of Eldritch Moon:

  1. [card]Sylvan Advocate – Creature, Green
  2. Tireless Tracker – Creature, Green
  3. Nissa, Vastwood Seer – Creature, Green
  4. Reflector Mage – Creature, White-Blue
  5. Archangel Avacyn – Creature, White
  6. Spell Queller – Creature, White-Blue
  7. Dromoka’s Command – Creature-Based Spell, Green-White
  8. Collected Company – Creature-Based Spell, Green
  9. Duskwatch Recruiter – Creature, Green
  10. Selfless Spirit – Creature, White

Obviously, Bant Company comprising roughly 35% of the Standard metagame skews these metrics drastically, whilst mtgtop8’s metrics are heavily influenced by MTGO. Let’s take a look at the top ten list from MTG Goldfish for comparison

  1. Sylvan Advocate – Creature, Green
  2. Tireless Tracker – Creature, Green
  3. Reflector Mage – Creature, White-Blue
  4. Dromoka’s Command – Creature-Based Spell, Green-White
  5. Spell Queller – Creature, White-Blue
  6. Collected Company – Creature-Based Spell, Green
  7. Duskwatch Recruiter – Creature, Green
  8. Selfless Spirit – Creature, White
  9. Nissa, Vastwood Seer – Creature, Green
  10. Declaration In Stone – Spell, White

These metrics are yet again skewed by the prevalence of Bant Company, but thankfully MTG Goldfish has also provided a list of the top ten non-creature spells in Standard:

  1. Dromoka’s Command – Creature-Based Removal, Green-White
  2. Collected Company – Creature “Cheating”, Green
  3. Declaration in Stone – Creature Removal, White
  4. Transgress the Mind – Hand Disruption, Black
  5. Traverse the Ulvenwald – Tutor, Green
  6. Languish – Sweeper, Black
  7. Grasp of Darkness – Creature Removal, Black
  8. Negate – Counterspell, Blue
  9. Liliana, the Last Hope – Planeswalker, Black
  10. Grapple with the Past – Utility Spell, Green

Here we see a little more variance in the types of spells on the list. High on the list are the more universal spells, followed by more archetype-specific cards and situational answers. Red still doesn’t appear on the list, and the only blue card is Negate; a counterspell that becomes increasingly relevant as spells like Collected Company, Traverse the Ulvenwald, and Planeswalkers threaten to run away with a game.

It is also worth noting that Kolaghan’s Command is still an extremely unique and powerful card, yet missing from the above top ten, seeing most of its play in Modern. As a control card, it has struggled to find a home in Standard with BW and BG being more popular combinations, but in Modern it absolutely wrecks shop against Affinity and Lantern players in particular.


Spells vs. Creatures: How Does the Metagame Break Down By Archetype?

Another metric one may use to measure the power of spells in the metagame is to look at the most popular archetypes, and their distribution of nonland cards. Which decks rely heavily on creatures, and which opt to sleeve up the most powerful spells in Standard? What types of spells and creatures comprise each archetype?

1. Bant Company: 35% of metagame: 75% creatures, 25% spells. Most maindeck spells dependent upon creatures (I.e. Collected Company, Dromoka’s Command).

2. BG Delirium (6%) / Jund Delirium (4%): 10% of metagame: 50-60% spells, 30-40% creatures, 6.7% [Card]Liliana, the Last Hope[/Card]. Spells are a combination of removal and Delirium enablers. Creatures provide card advantage or maximise their potency once Delirium has been achieved. BG Delirium is more of a midrange-control shell, while Jund Delirium features more Delirium enablers and pay-off cards.

3. WB Control: 7% of metagame: 50% spells, 10-25% creatures, 10-25% Planeswalkers. Spells are a combination of removal, hand disruption and card advantage.

4. UR Spells (or Machinegun): 6% of metagame: 75% spells, 25% creatures and enchantments. Spells are a combination of ‘burn’ and card quality (plus Fevered Visions), whilst creatures are dependent upon, enhance or are enhanced by the spells that make up the large proportion of the deck.

5. Mono-White / RW Humans: 6% of metagame: 75% creatures, 25% spells. Spells are a combination of ‘Anthem’ effects and removal.

6. 4C Emerge (3%) / Temur Emerge (3%): 6% of metagame: 45-60% creatures, 40-55% spells. There are two iterations of RUGx Emerge, one more spell and enabler-focussed and while the other is more creature heavy, with an emphasis on the Prized AmalgamHaunted Dead[/Card] axis. Spells are primarily ramp spells, Delirium enablers and [card]Kozilek’s Return.

Other Lesser Played Archetypes:

  • GW Tokens (43% creatures, 33% spells, 23% Planeswalkers).
  • RG Delirium Ramp (65% spells, 35% creatures).
  • Bant Humans (75% creatures, 25% spells).

Out of the most played archetypes, if we average the use of creatures vs. spells, we arrive at the following aggregate: Creatures: 48%, Spells: 33%, Planeswalkers: 14%. Part of the reason we find creatures firmly at the top of the Standard metagame is because they are currently the most reliable win condition available. Even 25% of the nonland cards in WB Control are creatures (normally around eight creatures in total), in a similar vein to UR Spells; a burn deck at heart that still requires that same ratio of creatures to be effective.


What Does a Strong Spell-Based Deck Look Like?

If you want an example of decks built around powerful spells and little to no reliance on creatures as win conditions, think back to UWx Control of Return to Ravnica Standard: Its sweeper, Supreme Verdict, cost an efficient but mana hungry four mana, whilst Sphinx’s Revelation provided a steady stream of card advantage and life gain. Detention Sphere held a similar position to the current Standard mainstay Declaration in Stone, minus the potential to be blown out by an Abrupt Decay[/Card] or other enchantment removal.

The deck was also filled out with an assortment of card draw and countermagic. Its win condition? Originally, a single copy of [card]Aetherling or a Jace, Architect of Thought ultimate, but the following year Elspeth, Sun’s Champion provided the deck with a ‘silver bullet’ with the ability to stabilise the board and an ultimate that won the game only a few turns later. This was a perfect example of a powerful spell-based deck (one that many of its pilots agreed was to some extent ‘busted’) that didn’t possess anywhere near the eight-creature-minimum in order to be successful, as is the case in the current Standard, and had versatile answers to an ever-shifting metagame.

All the while, decks such as Jund Midrange, Gruul Aggro, Aristocrats, Selesnya Aggro, Bant Hexproof, Boss Sligh, Red Devotion, Black Devotion, Blue Devotion, Green Devotion, RG Monsters, Orzhov Midrange, and Boros Aggro all had their time to shine. Each colour was strongly represented across several archetypes, and there was a healthy mix of aggro, midrange and control, that fairytale ‘paper-rock-scissors metagame your grandparents won’t shut up about.’


So What Does This Mean for September? Creatures Are the New Spells (At Least For Now)

Dwarves return in KaladeshSo we have established that while the heavy representation of Bant Company strongly skews any attempt at an aggregate of creatures vs. spells in Standard, with the exception of simply averaging the creature-to-spell distribution of all archetypes equally. We scan through various top ten most played lists, and grumble, ‘This is basically just the Bant Company decklist.’

We’ve also established that, Bant Company aside, each of the most played archetypes in the Standard format rely on creatures in some form or fashion. It would appear that while spells are still powerful, they’re far more situationally effective and many are relegated to Sorcery speed.

Finally, let’s look at what makes Bant Company so good…

No, really. Bear with me for a second, it’ll be worth it…

Bant Company is the posterchild of the strategy Wizards of the Coast has tried so hard to push over the past year. At its core, Bant Company is a deck that takes full advantage of Collected Company by playing 23 or more creatures of converted mana cost three or greater, plus four removal spells (usually a playset of Dromoka’s Command) and a few copies of a non-Collected Company hit (usually Archangel Avacyn). Some players might add in a little bit of maindeck countermagic or swap out some copies of Dromoka’s Command for Declaration in Stone, but the basic shell is still maintained.

To better understand the topic at hand, let’s divide the most common creatures of Bant Company into three groups:

1. The ‘Beaters’: Sylvan Advocate (with Lumbering Falls), Tireless Tracker, Archangel Avacyn.

2. Card Advantage: Duskwatch Recruiter, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Tireless Tracker, Nissa, Vastwood Seer.

3. Tempo Creatures: Reflector Mage, Spell Queller, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Eldrazi Displacer.

4. Protection: Selfless Spirit, Archangel Avacyn.

Bant Company is full of cards that accrue tempo advantage, card advantage, protection, and strong win conditions and, with the exception of Archangel Avacyn, they’re all creatures with converted mana cost three or less.

Archangel Avacyn and Spell Queller can be flashed in with spell-like abilities when they enter the battlefield, which is interesting specifically because spells are increasingly being relegated to sorcery speed. No, wait… All of the creatures in Bant Company can be flashed in, the majority with the help of Collected Company.

It’s not that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t want to print strong spells, but at least for now, creatures are the new spells.

With that in mind, let’s look at the top ten creatures in Standard one more time:

  • Sylvan Advocate is the only creature that actually feels like a creature. The only part of it that feels slightly like a noncreature spell is the +2/+2 bonus to creature lands, which feels like it could also be an enchantment effect.
  • Tireless Tracker acts like an enchantment or even a Planeswalker that accrues great advantage over a short period of time, even after the creature has left the battlefield.
  • Reflector Mage bounces a creature and gives you a creature, like a mini-Crush of Tentacles.
  • Spell Queller is almost a backwards Swan Song, with the minor drawback that the ‘countered’ spell may be cast later on when it’s potentially suboptimal.
  • Nissa, Vastwood Seer is a Planeswalker for all intensive purposes, with an added bonus of being a Civic Wayfinder with significant upside.
  • Duskwatch Recruiter also acts like a card advantage enchantment or cheap Planeswalker, powering out the deck’s creatures as the Krallenhorde Howler.
  • Selfless Spirit has an effect that we’re used to seeing on instants, but is unfortunately not as impressive against Standard’s premier sweeper, Languish.
  • Archangel Avacyn is card that is hard to compare to anything we’ve seen before: A 4/4 flying beater, instant speed indestructibility and sweeper all packed into a single card.
  • Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, unlike Nissa, starts off as an incredibly valuable looting tool much like the first few turns of Nahiri, the Harbinger. After a few turns, it becomes a powerful Planeswalker in its own light, becoming a virtual fifth through eighth copy of Collected Company.
  • Ishkanah, Grafwidow, while it definitely feels like a creature, the ‘mother of spiders’ also has a potentially game-winning life drain ability and gums up the board with three reach blockers. (I can’t wait for someone to break the Ishkanah-Displacer combination).

Don’t get me wrong, these are all viable creatures and not too far removed from what we’re used to seeing (what was that four mana 4/5 that came with a free Lightning Helix…), and I’m not necessarily complaining about their design. But it’s important to realize, when we discuss the balance in Standard between creatures and spells, what is the true intent behind the design.

The Magic community has high hopes that these recent Standard paradigm shifts are leading somewhere new in Kaladesh in a few weeks time. We know from Magic Origins that Kaladesh has a strong blue and red presence, so it should be no surprise to us that those colours feel a little ‘incomplete’ at present. Will spell-like creatures like Archangel Avacyn, Reflector Mage and Spell Queller still have uses after Collected Company rotates? Undoubtedly, but not as oppressively as we’ve come to accept over the past few months.

Only time will tell whether the balance between creatures and spells will be restored. We may soon see a day where we cast creatures during our main phase and spells during our opponent’s turn. In the meantime, I’ll have my Fiery Tempers and Collective Brutalitys at the ready, awaiting the next challenge.

Community Question: Is Standard balanced right now? And what changes do you want Kaladesh to bring to Magic?

Thanks for reading,

Joseph Dunlap


P.S. I almost forgot – Emrakul, the Promised End has a Mindslaver effect and everyone’s still complaining about Spell Queller. You might change your mind in after the release of Kaladesh, when you’ve had Emrakul cast on you for the 1,000th time. The point still stands though, creatures are the new spells!

Magic: The Gathering Spells vs. Creatures: Is Standard Balanced? by Joseph Dunlap
Recently, Mark Rosewater was asked on his Blogatog: "Why have you killed off blue and red in Standard by focusing more on creatures than spells?"

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